While the MMO space has proven somewhat turbulent for most entrants out there - many of which rely on a big splash launch and significant ongoing subscriber income - EVE Online has grown steadily since its launch in 2003 to become the second biggest traditional MMO game in the West with over 300,000 active subscribers.
At this year's Nordic Game conference we spent some time with CCP's executive producer, Nathan Richardsson, who updated us on some of the areas the team is currently working on, as well as finding out just what sort of impact hiring a real-life economist has had on the game's design.
Q: EVE Online's been growing consistently for several years now, with a decent spike this year so far - what do you attribute that to, when most other MMO's seem to drop numbers over time?
Nathan Richardsson: It started happening around November or December last year, basically around the financial meltdown, so maybe a lot of people are coming back to play to escape the real world?
Also we have a couple of initiatives that really opened it up, like our move into retail - it all just stacked up. It was much faster going from 250,000-300,000 subscribers than it was going from 200,000-250,000 for example. We're still seeing good growth, although we're expecting the summer to be slower - but still I think that it'll grow faster after that.
But growth in an of itself still isn't really a huge goal for us - this 300,000 number was simply a good goal-setter for the company to pull together and try and reach it, but at the same time it is that we've spent more time on EVE, and tried to fix what needs attention - plus make bigger expansions. It's basically that we've been working on all cylinders, all the way from marketing to development.
Q: The move to retail was an interesting one - EVE started life as a boxed product, but it was really the switch to online-only that proved its making... What sort of impact did the link with Atari have on the company?
Nathan Richardsson: It actually had a lot of effects. One was that we had hard deadlines, because we had to ship the CD master, and so on, when usually we have more freedom. It wasn't a restraint, but it meant that we took some different decisions based on the timeline.
But it also increased our daily acquisition numbers - they went up by about 15 per cent on top of what we'd usually find, so that was quite positive. We're more into being in retail to have a presence there, being in the stores, and preferably always have something new and different that we're trying to offer there.
In terms of numbers I think it was a big contributor, especially after the Apocrypha expansion launch, to our total numbers - but there are still units out there, so we haven't seen the full extent of how it's done. And of course people are still converting from actually buying the box and turning into subscribers.
Q: There was a sizeable expansion towards the end of 2008, and another one just a few months into 2009 - do you notice big player spikes when that happens?
Nathan Richardsson: Absolutely - and we carry out re-subscription campaigns and reach out to those that have lapsed, to tell them there's a new expansion coming, and to come and try it out for a few days before deciding to reactivate.
We're seeing a lot of uptake on that - between 4-8 per cent. The longevity of how long people stay when they come back really differs, but we see that a lot of people do come back and try. It's simple to reactivate the subscription, and people don't need to go to a store or anything, or pay USD 50-60 to try out a new expansion, so that's been really effective.
Q: Late last year there was a lot of effort put into the narrative elements with the introduction of the Empyrean Age expansion - a whole day of story build-up on the website while during the downtime for the game's upgrade, which was pretty compelling to watch unfold. How did the team go about deciding how that was going to play out?
Nathan Richardsson: That was pretty much driven by the novel that was coming out at a similar time. It was really the whole changes to the universe that followed with that. We will be doing it again, and doing it more extensively - it really comes down to the need for a vehicle to deliver this stuff outside of the game.
So we've been developing a lot of tools and communication options outside of the game itself to enable us to make it more compelling. That newsfeed back then was mainly around the prime fiction itself, but there's so much happening as well within the player fiction, that I think there's lots of room for improvement.
Q: You've now added in-game news items generated from the actions of the community to the character selection screen. How much does that add to the overall experience, do you think? Do lots of people read it, or does it just add generally to the feeling of a living, breathing universe?
Nathan Richardsson: As you say, part of it is an awareness - that you have news, a bit like when you have a news channel on. You watch it with one eye, perhaps.
But a lot of people are reading it extensively, and it's getting better over time - although it'll be more extensive when we've got proper social network applications where you as a personal identity, or as a corporate alliance, can have an outward-facing propaganda channel. I think that's going to really start opening up that aspect of the game, and more people will start wondering what's happening around them - besides of course what's happening in your closest vicinity.
Q: While most MMOs tend to remain static for long periods of time - maybe they'll add content periodically, but the basic environment never changes - EVE is more dynamic in that respect. Although much of the content will be played by experienced players (wormholes, and so on), it all filters down through the market to impact everybody. How do you balance that, to provide new content for veterans, but still manage the new player experience - is it a problem?
Nathan Richardsson: No, it's basically that we know we can't control it, so we simply go with the flow. We'll be putting more and more tools aimed at allowing the landscape to change, based on player actions, which will make it even more dynamic.
But when we create tools, it's a kind of framework within a box, where you allow a certain set of fluctuations which we feel are acceptable, and not, for example, make a starter area - which would be a bad idea.
It's all about the limitations themselves, and the gameplay inside. Basically our approach is that we have a certain outer boundary, but what happens within we try not to do too much about.
Q: EVE's a traditionally self-selecting player base, with a lot of complexity - the new player experience has been upgraded a couple of times in the past two years, and you also added the EVElopedia. Do you think that work has had an impact on people staying in the game - is it more accessible than it's ever been?
Nathan Richardsson: I think so, there's a much higher conversion ratio with new players, for example. It's been gradually getting better and better, but there was a good strong leap with Apocrypha... and it's also that we're going deeper into the metrics to see what people are doing in their first week, so we can focus on exposing the fundamental aspects of EVE while not taking three years to get them through the learning cliff of ours...
We've had some pitfalls that we've tried to address, and it's improved the process. We've certainly also done a couple of things that make it more accessible, but it's more that there were these pitfalls that weren't part of the complexity of EVE - they were just stupid.
So we've been addressing that, and doing more in the future based on research into what's happening in the first days - and how we can encourage people to check out other aspects of EVE. Some of them are quite hidden.
Q: One of the things I've always found fascinating is the in-game market, where the more people that contribute, the more interesting it becomes. Are there more tools planned for the economic side of the game?
Nathan Richardsson: Yes - it's always a question of how manipulative it is. If it's new gameplay, for example, we tend to have a hands-off approach to running the economy. We don't have a central bank or anything like that. It's more about evolving what's already in there, and at the same time providing our economist, Dr Eyjo, with more tools to analyse what's happening.
There's always something happening around the economy, whether that's in the back end for analysis, or making new resources more accessible. In general I think that getting Eyjo on board, getting a proper economist to look at that part of the game and see how we could improve it - but also see if real-world economic theories actually work in-game - was good.
Q: Has it helped from a game design point of view, and if so, how?
Nathan Richardsson: Yes - the thing is that you think about so many things as a value chain, with lots of links in-between. With this we've been seeing things like mistakes in resource distribution and fixed scarcity of moon minerals.
We've seen when more people have come in, that fixed scarcity has really upset the entire balance, which means that we're moving more towards resources that are just totally player-dependent. It's still scarcity-based, but it's more that there's not a totally finite number that doesn't scale.
So especially on the resource and industrial level, the economy has improved on that perspective, both by seeing where the major holes are and by seeing how small changes can affect the entire thing. It's more awareness-based.
Q: In the past year or so the price of one mineral, Tritanium, has gone up significantly, which has therefore had a big impact on manufacturing prices, and thus in turn on the price of certain ships or items. When something like that happens, do you feel the need to intervene?
Nathan Richardsson: Yes - but we'll address it more in the way that I, as a player, can actually address it, by simply choosing to go get more of those resources, or whatever. The fundamental thing is that you want the supply and demand to be 'affectable' by a player, because that's where you really put in real supply and demand, and the effort around it which creates the real price of it.
Our way to deal with it is to make it more available new space, or things like that, instead of directly injecting some more of a commodity into the economy. We don't really do that - with wormhole space we looked at which aspects of the whole industrial process would benefit by increasing the supply through that space.
Because number one, the opportunity is that the materials coming out of wormhole space are inherently more expensive because there's a lot more effort, which means that now effort is being priced into a lot of items - which they weren't before, the hardcore numbers didn't really count in that it took you eight hours to get the stuff.
That's kind of interesting to see - and at the same time we can be quite careful in manipulating the resource distribution. We don't really set a specific target - it's more that a certain resource here should be ten times greater, because it's way out. We're not really fine-tuning something like Tritanium, it's more that we see something has blatantly gone wrong, so we try to open up a path to future-proof it as well.
Nathan Richardsson is executive producer at CCP Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.